Cultures of human embryonic stem cell typically rely on protein matrices or feeder cells to support attachment and growth, while mechanical, enzymatic or chemical cell dissociation methods are used for cellular passaging. However, these methods are ill defined, thus introducing variability into the system, and may damage cells. They also exert selective pressures favouring cell aneuploidy and loss of differentiation potential. Here we report the identification of a family of chemically defined thermoresponsive synthetic hydrogels based on 2-(diethylamino)ethyl acrylate, which support long-term human embryonic stem cell growth and pluripotency over a period of 2-6 months. The hydrogels permitted gentle, reagent-free cell passaging by virtue of transient modulation of the ambient temperature from 37 to 15 °C for 30 min. These chemically defined alternatives to currently used, undefined biological substrates represent a flexible and scalable approach for improving the definition, efficacy and safety of human embryonic stem cell culture systems for research, industrial and clinical applications.